Well off the beaten path for Boston area chamber music but just around the corner from the Orange Line, St. Paul’s Episcopal Parish in Malden Center is an inviting space where on Saturday night, the Firebrand Concert Series presented its Local Composer Spotlight. Diana Golden, a cellist devoted to “using music as a tool for social change and cultural diplomacy,” led Firebrand’s second series. The audience of around thirty appeared indistinguishable from one that might turn out at the usual classical venues in Cambridge or Brookline. Composers of four of the five works played were in attendance: Jess Hendricks, Jessica Rudman, Florie Namir, Peter Van Zandt Lane, and Firebrand’s Composer in Residence, Oliver Caplan, who selected the others from open submissions to Firebrand’s “Call for Scores.”
The program opened with Hendricks’s A Short Drive Through the Berkshires, a work for clarinet, violin, and piano that began in soft focus but moved to a jaunty conclusion credibly reminiscent of a drive in the country. Filling out the rest of first half were two disappointing works: Jessica Rudman’s First Praise — a forgettable study in atmospheric timbres for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano — and Namir’s ISAM Variations, a heartless and meandering work that stripped a borrowed Sephardic melody of its original expressivity and character.
The second half began with Mr. Caplan’s My Elephant Cloud, a work intended to invoke a summer’s day which was scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. This piece had a warm veneer but it eventually began to cloy. Van Zandt Lane’s Piano Trio No. 1, which revealed itself as the best work of the evening, concluded the program. Laid out in two well-balanced movements, this piece had depth, character, and a pleasing complexity. The ghostly first movement felt suspended in time as the bowed strings slowly grew out of submerged harmonies in the piano. The second movement had an unsettling energy and a lucid and clearly punctuated structure across its six minutes. Before the performance, Van Zandt Lane explained that he retroactively subtitled the piece “Taijitu” after the Taoist concepts of Yin and Yang, but didn’t want it to seem an appropriation of Eastern philosophy. Fear not, for the first time of the night, it felt like a composer was at work with something thoughtful of his own to say.
Throughout the evening, pianist Yelena Beriyeva was the standout performer as she made the most of every score and of the church’s little baby grand. The other performers—cellist Diana Golden, violinist Leah Zelnick, clarinetist Margo McGowan, flutist Jessica Lizak and Lidiya Yankovskaya, who conducted First Praise—appeared solid in this unfamiliar music, although they lacked strong interpretive insight.
Between the two halves of the concert, Caplan led the other composers in a roundtable discussion with audience questions. Apparently the listeners were not sufficiently moved to ask about the pieces just heard, so the few tepid questions focused on music technology and the matter of professional self-promotion. Here, predictably, the composers suggested Facebook specifically and the internet in general as the best avenue to reach audiences. But while these technologies may be enough to get ten friends to show on a Saturday night, they can’t on their own build a vibrant community of listeners. This is why Firebrand might be of interest yet: one can imagine a community-based concert series in Malden that would fall somewhere in the uncharted niche between subscription series and “outreach.” There’s potential here, but bringing the series to life will require a whole lot of legwork in addition to an unflinching instinct for selecting and performing music—both old and new—that genuinely touches in interesting ways.